All language can be viewed as constructing symbols, through which a reader can identify modern ideas and concerns. Techniques used to create any aspect of a text can be seen as a symbol in some form – whether it was the writer’s intention or not. It is difficult to determine what an author’s ‘true’ intentions may have been; through applying a contemporary, academic reading of a text, one can identify repeating symbols which focus on one theme or idea that the writer has – deliberately or otherwise – addressed.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles can be read as having a feminist stance in a patriarchal society, as shown through symbolism of the novel’s protagonist, Tess Durbeyfield. If attempts to be principled in a pragmatic world, they will inevitably suffer as a result. Upon being offered compensation after being raped by Alec, Tess stays true to her ideals, refusing his offering. Showing a level of independence that is rarely seen, Tess exclaims “I have said I will not take anything more from you, and I will not – I cannot! I would be your creature to go on doing that, and I won’t. There is a powerful use of metaphor here: by referring to Tess as a creature, the text suggests that were Tess to accept compensation, she would be nothing more than Alec’s domesticated pet – nothing more than one of his possessions. Through refusing this offer of payment Tess stays true to her feminist stance and boldly maintains her idealistic ways, going against the patriarchal system in place. In Tess’ world, the support of the father is crucial in the upbringing of a child: in order for the child to be considered legitimate – and therefore able to actively participate in society – the father must be present and acknowledged.
As forcefully as she can, she attempts to deny Alec’s efforts to own her: she adheres to her feminist ideals, even when it brings misfortune upon her and her family. Here Tess is seen as a feminist symbol standing against the patriarchy which is evident in the novel: when the simplest, most profitable option would force Tess to relinquish her independence, she refuses it. Several years later, Tess internally contemplates whether she should tell her new husband, Angel Clare, about her unfortunate past. As always, she stays true to her idealistic ways, naively believing that Angel will understand and accept the act that she was not ‘pure’ (in the literal sense of the word) upon meeting him. Upon explaining this to him, Tess declares that “I have forgiven you for the same. ” This clearly demonstrates Tess’ refusal to accept the imbalances evident in the binary opposition of male against female. Angel has indeed been with another woman – however, in the eyes of society, this pales in comparison to Tess’ rape. She does not accept the fact that the actions of men and woman are judged differently by society, and believes that Angel should also hold this viewpoint.
This view of equality is reinforced by her statement “I am only a peasant by position, not by nature. ” Tess attempts to remove not only the distinction between gender, but the inequalities created by class: a futile and doomed effort, but one that is principled nonetheless. Tess once again stands as a symbol of feminist ideals through her refusal to accept the dichotomy in the binary opposition between men and women. No matter how strictly one may attempt to adhere to their ideals, the beliefs of society will eventually overpower them.
This can be seen towards the close of the novel, when upon killing Alec, Tess murmurs that “I owed it to you, and to myself… for the trap he set for me in my simple youth. It is not difficult to understand Tess’ reasoning behind the murder: it was the greatest action that she could have taken, in that she took the power from the patriarchy into her own hands, and killed a man who had previously done her wrong. In feminist terms, Tess was refusing to be controlled by men, and the text suggests that Tess is simply following the ideal of justice in its purest terms: where men and women are deemed guilty or innocent regardless of their gender.
However, by allowing herself to place so much importance on a man, Tess inadvertently adheres to the patriarchal views of her society. The fact that she felt compelled to kill Alec reveals the enormous shadow he cast over her life: she felt so controlled by him that she needed to end his life to be rid of it. While the action itself may be viewed as a symbol for feminism, the thought process which led to it clearly shows that the beliefs of Tess’ society have imposed themselves upon her.
By refusing to waver in one’s ideals, one is ultimately doomed to suffer within society. After the murder of Alec, Tess is apprehended and sentenced to death by hanging. However, Tess does not seem overly distraught by this, saying to Angel “I’m ready. ” It is obvious that Tess is prepared to die for her ideals: she is characterised as a martyr in the name of feminism, who was ultimately crushed by the pragmatic, patriarchal society she could not escape. She accepts that she cannot overcome the view of society, and so consigns herself to death calmly.
The inevitability of this situation is enforced by an authorial comment by Hardy: “Justice was done, and as the president of the Immortals in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. ” This classical reference shows that Tess is not the first victim to fall foul of the patriarchy; nor will she be the last. The text enforces the idea that it is futile to stand against societal belief, and that those who attempt to do so will perish. Tess’ attempts to follow the ideals of feminism did not alter the beliefs of her society – and ultimately, she paid with her life for adhering to these ideals.
Whether it was Hardy’s intention or not, Tess of the D’Urbervilles can be read as a text that explores the futility of attempting to follow feminist principles in a pragmatic, patriarchal society. Through many literary devices, Tess is painted as a symbol for feminism in her world – which can be viewed as a microcosm of our society – and her eventual downfall shows us the repercussions of attempting to follow such ideals. If we wish to function in our society, we would be better off if we adopted a pragmatic approach, rather than blindly following a set of principles.